Something rather interesting seems to be going on in the field of forced adoption.

Although my interest is primarily in private family law, the issue of when the state can permanently take away your children should concern us all.

The essence of these cases is that in many a child is taken on the basis of the risk of future emotional harm. Emotional harm is hard to define, it is certainly less easy to pin down than physical or sexual abuse, and in some cases the definition seems to have been stretched to include very questionable harm to a child’s morals. One government paper described it as “abnormalities of emotions, behaviour or social relationships sufficiently marked or prolonged to cause suffering or risk to optimal development in the child or distress or disturbance in the family or community”.

Then there is the idea that this is harm which has not yet befallen the child, but which may do so in the future. The likelihood of this happening does not need to be proved on the balance of probability which cannot be applied to harm which has not yet happened; there merely needs to be a real possibility. This relies on a judgement call as there can be no evidence for something which has not happened, and this makes the claim easier and cheaper to make.

On this basis a child can be taken from its parents and into care, and then be adopted. Adoption is irreversible in almost all cases (in my recent A to Z (Langford & Langford, 2015) I could only find five cases where an adoption order had been reversed – none is recent). Thus a child can be permanently removed from parents who have caused him no harm and be reallocated to other parents in a relatively straightforward legal process. Needless to say, very few other countries consider forced adoption to be justifiable.

The columnist and agony aunt Denise Robertson has written a novel, Don’t Cry Aloud (Robertson, 2015), which she describes as “a lightly fictionalised account of the real stories I encounter every day”. Forced adoption, she says, is “a national scandal that must be exposed”, and she has dedicated the novel to Mark and Nicky Webster, two parents from whom three children were forcibly adopted on the basis of a medical misdiagnosis of only one of them. To publicise Robertson’s book the Daily Mail published an article (Hardy, 2015) in which Robertson describes some of the cases she has investigated; it is a compelling and disturbing article,

 The lead-up to those final farewells is harrowing. Families — birth mothers, grandparents, siblings — often drive miles to be given 90-minute, heavily supervised access visits to their bewildered children in contact centres. Their every move is monitored and, if they cry — and who could fail to do so? — their tears are considered to be ‘emotional abuse’ of the child and the visit is curtailed. So they steel themselves to be brave. They don’t cry aloud. Instead, they cry inside until the emotion overwhelms them.

The article was picked up by numerous people concerned about the issue, blogged about, discussed on Facebook, Tweeted and re-Tweeted. One organisation which shared it was BASW, the British Association of Social Workers. A number of social workers were outraged; on Facebook Sherri Louise Coyne wrote,

 Seriously why post this?… BASW posting this with no preceding comment is dangerous. What message are you (via the Daily Mail?!?!) trying to convey?

Jennifer Ablitt said,

 Well done BASW – ‘The strong independent voice for social work and social workers’. You showed your true commitment to our profession by spouting out this nonsense!. This is exactly why I wouldn’t give you a penny of my hard earned money.

While Sara Paskell McAleavy wrote,

BASW you are really letting yourselves and the profession down by posting such nonsense. How is this enabling the promotion of Social Work as a respected career. Please have a word with your FB person.

And Rachel Cartwright said,

 Terrible article-biased, inaccurate and taking things way out of their context…what is the purpose of you posting this BASW? Once again the social work profession and family courts are being bashed by people who have no real idea what they are talking about…and they go on to write a book and articles about it to make money.

The Vice Chair of BASW, Maggie Mellon, was forced to publish a very carefully-worded response (Mellon, 2015), justifying sharing the article,

 There seems to be a belief that as a member-led organisation representing social workers, we should automatically reject any criticism and therefore should defend the practice of non-consensual or ‘forced’ adoption. While BASW fully accepts responsibility for defending our members if their practice is challenged, we are also responsible for debating and discussing ethical practice.

Mellon must be correct to be encouraging debate about so controversial an issue and not suppressing material critical of her members. Clearly she shares some of the discomfort others feel for the practice of forced adoption.  She must also be aware that her words will be picked up and disseminated widely, so this paragraph is particularly interesting,

 There is growing public interest and concern, and it is very important that your professional association shows leadership in responding to this. We cannot deny that there are grounds for concern and inquiry and explanation, and neither should we attack the messengers – the birth families and their spokespeople such as Denise Robertson.

The interesting and surely very deliberate word there is “inquiry”. I have no doubt that Mellon knows the difference between an “enquiry” and an “inquiry”; this seems to have been the view taken by academic social worker Professor Brid Featherstone who took Mellon’s use of it literally on Twitter,

 Thank you @maggiemellon I think we need a public inquiry into adoption – the issues involved are so consequential.

An fascinating debate proceeded on Twitter, involving social workers and parents who had experience of the system, and I hope sincerely that it will expand more widely, and result, ultimately, in that inquiry, which is sorely needed; though a wider investigation into family justice may be even more valuable.  Mellon may be made to regret what she has started, but I hope not. Her job may be to represent social workers, but it is also to represent social work, and if there is a problem with an aspect of social work it needs to be addressed. And social workers must remember that they represent children and their families, not their own narrow self-interest.



Hardy, F. (2015, May 27). Blood-chilling scandal of the thousands of babies stolen by the State: TV agony aunt DENISE ROBERTSON writes about her lengthy investigation. Daily Mail.

Langford, N., & Langford, R. (2015). The Family Law A to Z. Havant.

Mellon, M. (2015, May 28). Denise Robertson Daily Mail article – a response from BASW’s Vice Chair. Retrieved from

Robertson, D. (2015). Don’t Cry Aloud. London: Hopcyn Press.